Two Worlds, One Home
By Dorothy Chan
A reflection of cultural identity through the lens of a first-generation, Chinese-American girl.
I take a deep breath as I walk along the Rue de Coelho do Amaral in Macau. Whiffs of laundry detergent from the clotheslines hanging across tight-knit housing complexes complement the aromas of cha siu (roasted pork) and spices from street food vendors. Observing my surroundings, my eyes wander past the narrow roads lined with colorful motorcycles to the hospital where my brother was born and the office building where my mother used to work. I listen intently to the sounds of loud blends of Cantonese and Mandarin intertwined with the rapid ticks of the crosswalks and the overpowering car horns.
My family exclaims at the restaurants they used to frequent, and even exchange a few “hello’s” to neighbors they haven’t seen in over ten years. As for me, I see unfamiliar buildings crowded by unfamiliar faces instead. Having only been to Macau twice, I feel more like a tourist in the place that I’m supposed to call home.
Similar to growing up 8,000 miles away from Macau, my ties to my culture have been distanced. I’m reminded of the cultural gap I face every time I Google Translate a word when speaking to my parents, or when I forget about the Mid-Autumn festival until I see a mooncake held in front of me. However, from living in New York City instead, I’ve also relished the exposure to a myriad of cultures different from my own. The annual Santa Rosalia festival in my neighborhood brings hundreds of people to honor the patron saint while enjoying traditional Spanish cuisine and dancing to Italian pop music. On the subway, I not only hear exchanges in Cantonese and Mandarin, but in Urdu, Russian, and Tagalog too. At school, traditional religious clothing is shown off at fashion shows during holiday celebrations. With every new ethnic meal that I try or a foreign phrase that I learn, I grow to be more familiar with the plethora of cultures I am surrounded by every day. The significance of diversity presents itself through each exposure as an opportunity to learn about, grow from, and appreciate cultural differences.
Macau is unfamiliar to me. It also provides me with a sense of fulfillment to walk the same streets that past generations of my family have, to soak in the history that I inherited. These are the truths that I’ve accepted in order to find ways to connect to my culture.
Every Lunar New Year, my family and I attend our local parade, where cheers echo for miles as lion dancers dance rhythmically to the accompanying drums. Seeing Asian-Americans across several generations pouring from every borough reminds me of the crowded streets I wove through in Macau. When I go to yum cha (eating dim sum) with my family, I also reminisce about the first time my mom brought me to her favorite restaurant. As I take walks around the block, I breathe in the recognizable smells of clean laundry and freshly cooked dinner.
In these moments, I am transported back to Rue de Coelho do Amaral in the comforting familiarity of New York City. I am between two worlds, embraced into one home.
Throughout my college application process, I was forced to reflect on who I was. What were my favorite songs? What hobbies do I like? How would I describe myself? What is the world that I come from? Some aspects of myself were easier to write about than others. Writing about my cultural identity was especially challenging. However, it was also fulfilling to finally have the way that I felt about my relationship with my culture to be put into words. I tried to define what being Chinese-American meant on my own terms, which also meant coming to terms with some difficult truths in my essay. In the end, I created a piece that highlighted the struggle that I long had with my cultural identity, and where it stands today.
Dorothy Chan is a junior at a high school in Brooklyn. Fascinated and inspired by the world around her, she seeks to explore her curiosities while educating herself on intersectional socio-political issues. Through her writing, she aims to amplify her voice along with those from underrepresented communities.